Media Scene

U-verse calls on WBTV to lift blackout for UNC game

AT&T U-verse customers who tune to WBTV (Channel 3) get this message instructing them about options to see NCAA games.
AT&T U-verse customers who tune to WBTV (Channel 3) get this message instructing them about options to see NCAA games.

With no visible progress in contract negotiations, AT&T U-verse urged Raycom Media to lift its blackout for Friday night’s Tar Heel basketball game.

As key NCAA Men’s Tournament games drew close, both sides blamed the other Wednesday in the blackout of CBS affiliate WBTV (Channel 3) on AT&T U-verse in the Charlotte area.

In a letter to WBTV general manager Scott Dempsey on Wednesday, Linda Burakoff, AT&T’s vice president of programming, said that the station should persuade its parent company to allow the cable system to carry the UNC game.

“We believe there is no public interest served by WBTV and Alabama-based Raycom continuing this deliberate blackout – inconveniencing our Charlotte subscribers and disrupting the hard-working proprietors of local restaurants and North Carolina sports bars that televise March Madness,” Burakoff said.

In Charlotte, U-verse customers face a blackout of the CBS game scheduled to be carried on WBTV at 7:09 p.m. Thursday between No. 3-seed Oregon and No. 7-seed Michigan.

But it is the 7:09 p.m. Friday game – between the No. 1-seed UNC Tar Heels, the last surviving ACC team in the tournament, and No. 4-seed Butler Bulldogs that has the most fan base locally.

It is the first time in the tournament UNC has been the CBS game – earlier appearances were on Turner stations not affected by the U-verse-Raycom dispute.

“We formally request that WBTV and its parent company Raycom immediately return WBTV to all U-verse customers in the Charlotte region for, at a minimum, the duration of Friday night’s game,” Burakoff said.

At the one-week point in the blackout, Raycom said Wednesday that AT&T was using the dispute to drive customers to its DirecTV satellite service, which still carries the local stations under a separate contract.

“When disgruntled AT&T U-verse subscribers call to lodge a complaint, they are offered a subscription with DirecTV, the very same company as AT&T,” Raycom Media said in a statement.

“In some instances, subscribers are also pushed to DirecTV Now,” Raycom said, “a service that in many markets does not carry any local broadcast affiliates: a zero-sum game for subscribers.”

In all, 23 stations owned by Raycom Media, based in Montgomery, Ala., are affected by the blackout because the broadcaster has not reached terms with AT&T U-verse.

WBTV continues to be carried on the region’s dominant cable system – Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable – and is available through other providers.

At the heart of the dispute is how much AT&T is willing to pay Raycom to carry its stations. Station groups, arguing that their network content and local news is of prime importance to the cable audience, have been pressuring carriers to pay more.

But cable systems and satellite services, trying to keep a lid on price increases to customers, have been bargaining for lower costs.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs